Sales of alcohol surged in 2020, especially among the higher-proof varieties. But one type far outsold the others: hand sanitizer.
In the heat of the pandemic, Purell poured some $400 million into expanding its production. As anyone who resorted to bootleg hand sanitizer knows, the company came nowhere close to meeting demand. Distilleries and state governments also got in on the action; New York State’s version was, as best as I could discern, a mixture of urinal cakes and bottom-shelf vodka. (I was grateful for it.) All told, by the end of 2020, sales of hand sanitizer had increased by 600 percent.
Some of this sanitizer is presumably still sitting untouched in people’s pandemic pantry stockpiles. But much of it also went onto our skin, where the alcohol hastily dissolves most of the viruses, bacteria, and fungi it encounters. This dramatic increase in personal sterilization—combined with many other microbe-reducing habits, including masking and physical distancing—have prompted some biologists to wonder, in academic papers and prominent op-eds, about the extent of the “collateral damage” to our immune system.
To get this out of the way: Destroying the coronavirus is, without question, paramount. Millions of people are dead, and tens of thousands more die every week. At the same time, the majority of the trillions of microbes that inhabit our skin and gut—collectively, our microbiome—are either harmless or helpful. “The microbes we carry around are involved in many of the fundamental processes of Homo sapiens,” Brett Finlay, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, told me. Among their other roles, these organisms interact with the immune cells in our skin and teach them to respond only to serious threats. The overall effect of messing with our microbes is not manifestly good or bad, but it is also manifestly not zero.